The Christ of Pentecost
What Scripture reveals about Jesus as the Spirit Baptizer
What does Pentecost tell us about Jesus Christ? This question might seem strange at first. After all, doesn’t Pentecost in the Christian calendar belong to the Holy Spirit? It certainly does. But a close examination of Acts 2 reveals something more. It shows us that the great event of the Spirit’s outpouring was the culminating act of Jesus’ messianic mission.
Perplexed observers of the Pentecost event asked, “What does this mean?” Peter answered by pointing chiefly to Christ’s role as the Spirit Baptizer. Peter noted that Jesus was crucified and raised to impart the promised Holy Spirit.
In fact, Peter described this outpouring as the inaugural act of Jesus’ enthronement as Lord: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
With this culminating act, Christ made His transition from anointed Messiah to Giver of the Spirit: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (2:36).
Indeed, the event that launches the work of the Spirit in the world also culminates Christ’s work for the world. I wish to highlight three major insights that the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost provides about Christ’s Person and work.
First, Jesus as the Spirit Baptizer grants us a more expansive view of Christ’s messianic mission than Christians typically recognize, especially those in the West. Typically, we focus on Christ’s work in the towering events of the Incarnation and crucifixion. Less emphasized is Christ’s ascension and enthronement. And nearly always neglected is Jesus’ role in imparting the Spirit to all flesh upon His enthronement (Acts 2:32-36).
The classical creeds of the Church (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition) do not even mention Christ’s mediation of the Spirit, even though all four Gospels highlight Jesus’ anointing at the Jordan for this purpose, and Luke in particular accents its fulfillment at Pentecost in Acts 2.
As a result of this neglect, we often miss the more expansive view of Jesus’ messianic mission that Luke in particular gives us. Luke shows us that Jesus not only provides for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, but He also imparts the Spirit to launch the abundant life and mission of the Church. And Jesus does so in a way that opens up all aspects of His life in the Spirit to us, including his Spirit-empowered mission in the world.
That the culmination of Jesus’ work is His impartation of the Spirit is a point the New Testament makes in several places. Jesus told the woman at the well that those who drink of the water He gives will never thirst again, for this water will well up in them to eternal life (John 4:13-14).
Later in John, Jesus declared that those who believe in Him will overflow with the Spirit, with rivers of living water flowing from within them (7:38). Indeed, Jesus came that we might have life “and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Excluding this insight causes the Church to view Jesus’ life and mission as rather Spiritless. The end result is that the Church also tends to be viewed as Spiritless.
To better understand what Jesus did at Pentecost, one needs to examine its foundation in Jesus’ reception of the Spirit at the Jordan River. In Luke 3:16-17, John the Baptist told his audience he baptized in water, but the Messiah would baptize with the “Holy Spirit and fire.”
The Jordan River was significant, because the Israelites under Joshua had crossed it to enter the Promised Land. Those John baptized went into the river to repent and leave behind their sins. Their goal was to re-enter the Promised Land as a renewed people, except this time the so-called Promised Land was viewed as the promised life of the Spirit and its fulfillment in the kingdom of the Messiah.
According to John the Baptist, the Messiah mediates from the Father a river of the Spirit into which all who repent enter, and into which they will even be submerged (or Spirit baptized) as a restored people. Those who refuse to repent will be judged by fire.
Jesus joined the sinners in the Jordan River, even though He had no need to repent. He joined them as the One who would lead them to the fulfillment they sought. John the Baptist could not lead them to this fulfillment. He was not the Messiah.
To fulfill His messianic mission, Jesus received the Spirit from the Father, who declared Him to be the beloved Son (Luke 3:22). He received the Spirit to lead God’s people safely through the fire of judgment and to the Promised Land of the life of the Spirit and the coming kingdom of God.
As John the Baptist foretold, Jesus will baptize in “fire” those who do not repent. In the latter days, He will indeed light the earth with the fire of judgment in preparation for the coming Kingdom. But Christ also knew that He must first bear that fire himself in the baptism of His death (Luke 12:49-50) to provide a way of escape.
The disciples would experience a “baptism” of suffering too, but not exactly like their Lord’s. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus paid humanity’s debt and overcame the fire of judgment on their behalf so He could lead all those who repent and believe to the full blessing of life through the Spirit. Jesus would submerge them in the Spirit and plunge them ever deeper into His mission in the world so they could fulfill Israel’s call to bear witness to the nations (Acts 1:8).
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection functioned like a new Exodus from the bondage of sin and death to the riches of life in the Spirit. His death and resurrection have this Spirit outpouring as its goal.
This all means that the Spirit-filled life is the Christ-filled life.
Recognizing Jesus as the Mediator of the Spirit enriches and expands our understanding of Christ’s messianic mission, as well as our own Spirit-empowered life as the people of God in Him. The people of God are not only reconciled but reconciling, not only justified but Spirit-filled. Christ’s mission is not fulfilled until He launches the mission of the Church at Pentecost.
Second, an emphasis on Jesus as Spirit Baptizer dramatically reveals the true nature of the Spirit-filled life. Jesus imparts the Spirit to conform His Church to His own Spirit-filled life. Jesus was ideally filled with the Spirit. The Spirit remained with Him (John 1:33). Throughout Jesus’ life and even at His death, the Spirit remained with Him as the presence and guarantee of future victory (Hebrews 9:14).
Because Christ as the Son of God was sinless and perfectly yielded, the Spirit had no reason to depart. The Spirit remained with Him beyond the cross, for Christ was raised in the power of the Spirit (Romans 1:4) to be the Life Giver for all others (1 Corinthians 15:45). Jesus imparts the Spirit in a way that opens His own life and mission to others. Moreover, the Spirit was imparted to Him “without limit,” for Christ’s witness was not hampered by disobedience (John 3:34).
Especially significant is the fact that Jesus shows us what the Spirit-filled life looks like under fire. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered life was not only characterized by miracles and striking spiritual insights, but it was also a demonstration of deep endurance during times of abandonment, personal struggle and suffering. It was a path that led to a cross, to a life characterized by self-sacrificial love. Jesus’ spiritual strength was always exercised in weakness as a testimony to the power of God.
In times of testing, Jesus stood by the will of the Father without compromise. He never yielded to the temptations of worldly power and wealth. Jesus always put His servant’s path and loyalty to the kingdom of His Father above all else. He opened His table to sinners, inviting them to the life of the Kingdom, and, in following the Law, Jesus made love for God and mercy toward sinners His supreme loyalty.
Jesus moved in the power of the Spirit with such force that He drove out demons, and the power of the Kingdom became real in the lives of others (Matthew 12:28). But at Gethsemane, Jesus was in need of a deeper strength, and He found it.
This all means that the Spirit-filled life is the Christ-filled life. In transferring the Spirit that anointed His own faithful journey to us, Christ invites us to live an analogous journey in union with Him. By transferring the Spirit to us, Christ opens up His path and mission to us.
The construction of the Acts narrative highlights these analogies of experience in the Spirit between Christ and His Church. Christ receives the Spirit in power. He proclaims the meaning of it and does miracles, but Jesus also suffers trials and persecutions. His faithful path leads to a cross, which then leads ultimately to the triumph of the Resurrection for the sake of others.
So the Church at its inception also receives the Spirit and proclaims the meaning of all this. Jesus’ followers witness signs and wonders in evidence. But they also experience trials and persecution. Stephen, the first martyr, even asks that the sin of his executioners not be held against them (Acts 7:60), a prayer that was similar to the one Jesus prayed for His executioners from the cross (Luke 23:34).
It is as though the Early Church, in the power of the Spirit, was reliving the anointed path of the Messiah, except His life was the quintessential one and theirs the copy.
Third, Jesus’ role as Spirit Baptizer decisively reveals His deity. Jesus was more than the ideal man of the Spirit. If Jesus were just a Spirit-anointed man, He would not be able to impart the Holy Spirit or the power of His risen life to anyone. Only the Lord can impart the Spirit. “I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:6).
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter noted that Jesus poured forth the Spirit from the Father as the first act of His enthronement to reign as Lord (Acts 2:32-36). In this act of pouring forth the Spirit, Jesus showed himself to be “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
The Messiah who bears the Spirit is now shown to be the Lord who pours forth the Spirit upon all flesh. The term for “Lord” in passages such as this is a title for God. And the Spirit becomes the only means by which we can genuinely confess Christ as Lord of all (1 Corinthians 12:3).
His resurrection from the dead validated all that Jesus had said of himself, including the fact that He is one with the Father (John 10:30). Jesus was always the Word of the Father who was with God and was God (John 1:1). But at Pentecost, He dramatically showed us His Lordship in action. Jesus imparted the Spirit of God from the heavenly Father. From that time on, the Spirit of God was also called the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). In belonging to God, the Spirit is shown to belong to Christ.
Additional things Jesus did, such as His miracles, others under the influence of the Spirit can do as well. But only the divine Christ can reign as Lord, and, as Lord, be the wellspring of the Spirit of life. Not surprisingly, the greatest theological minds of the ancient Church pointed out that Jesus’ role in imparting the Spirit from the heavenly Father was the moment where He showed forth His deity and lordship most dramatically.
Commenting on Acts 2:32-36, St. Augustine wrote of Christ, “How then can he who gives the Spirit not be God? Indeed how much must he who gives God be God? None of his disciples ever gave the Holy Spirit; they prayed that he might come upon those on whom they laid hands … . He received it as a man, he poured it out as God.”
Shortly after, Cyril of Alexandria wrote that Christ is the Giver of the Spirit, “because Christ is not a God-bearing man like other saints but rather is truly God.”
Jesus journeyed from the womb to the tomb and from the tomb to the throne. And from the throne, He imparts the Spirit so as to drive the mission of the Church through to its end at His return.
Acts tellingly starts by characterizing Luke’s Gospel as describing what Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1). The implication is that Christ continues to act in and through the Church in the world. He continues to open His life and mission to us. We continue to drink of the Spirit from Him as our living Lord, the Head of His body. Jesus is, throughout the life and mission of the Church, the Spirit Baptizer.